The Olympics have concluded and the NWSL regular season is at the halfway point after Week 12 action. All 10 teams have played at least 12 games during the 24-match season, with Portland Thorns FC currently sitting in first-place in league standings. As the second half of the season begins this weekend, and more players return from international duty, let's take a look at three storylines to keep an eye on as the season continues. You can watch live NWSL action all season long on Paramount+.
1. Will Portland win the Shield?
Ahead of the Tokyo Games, the Portland Thorns bid farewell to several key players to the Olympics. U.S. women's national team players Becky Sauerbrunn, Adrianna Franch, Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, and Canadian international Christine Sinclair have all been away from the team since July and all five internationals are starting XI-caliber for the Thorns.
The Thorns went undefeated in six matches over the Olympic portion of the schedule and have extended their point total in first-place. Here's a look at the top half of the NWSL standings:
1. Portland Thorns
2. North Carolina Courage
3. Gotham FC
4. Orlando Pride
5. Chicago Red Stars
The depth of the Thorns over the last several weeks not only helped Portland get back into first place, but extend the club's lead in the position. The Thorns have a seven-point gap between them and second place, and a nine-point lead ahead of sixth-place OL Reign.
As their Olympic medalists slowly return to club, head coach Mark Parsons and his roster have put themselves in a strong position to contend for the NWSL Shield (given to the team with the best regular season record).
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2. Have OL Reign figured things out just in time?
After struggling to find a consistent form in the first half of the season, OL Reign closed out their Olympic portion of the schedule with a three-game winning streak to move into sixth place.
The club parted ways with former head coach Farid Benstiti after a series of disappointing results and a failure to win after adding big-name talent to the squad with Olympique Lyon stars Sarah Bouhaddi, Dzenifer Marosan, and Eugenie Le Sommer joining OL Reign.
Long time assistant Sam Laity took over as interim head coach, and the team began to find their form a bit as Jess Fishlock, Marosan, and Sofia Huerta became key figures in the midfield. Forward Bethany Balcer has been in top form, leading the team with six goals through the first half of the season. Along with the return of American stars Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle from the Olympics, the team will also welcome the arrival of head coach Laura Harvey.
OL Reign announced Harvey would return the the Reign as head coach at the conclusion of the Olympics, after completing her time as part of the U.S. soccer staff with the women's national team.
3. Will Orlando keep playoff pace?
Orlando Pride struggled throughout the Olympic portion of the schedule, dropping in the standings, and seeing the departure of head coach Marc Skinner to Manchester United. The club went on a six-game winless streak between coaches, and ultimately named University of Florida head coach Becky Burleigh as interim head coach before snapping their skid with a win against Chicago Red Stars.
Veterans have spoken on Burleigh's arrival as refreshing and an important step for the club in their pursuit of the playoffs during this next half of the regular season. The team has welcomed back the return of Olympians in Brazilian icon Marta and New Zealand defender Ali Riley. The return of USWNT forward Alex Morgan will be postponed a bit as she picked up an injury during the bronze medal match and USWNT players aren't immediately expected back in club markets after international tournaments. Backup goalkeeper and Canadian gold medalist Erin McLeod will also join the team at later point.
The Olympians added experience will boost the Pride no doubt, and the club currently has the top scorer in the league with forward Sydney Leroux. Leroux has seven goals over 13 appearances this regular season.
After an impressive seven-game unbeaten streak to begin the season, the Pride also navigated various injuries among as they fell from first place to seventh place during the Olympic stretch. Their recent win over Chicago has propelled them back into the top four, and as Burleigh continues to challenge younger players in Taylor Kornieck and Courtney Petersen, the team could make push to stay in playoff contention.